Proven Practices of Civic Education:
The future voters and decision-makers are in our classrooms. Civic education is an important aspect of social studies that is often over-looked. But there are meaningful ways that we can bring civic education into our elementary classrooms. A mock election is one tangible way we can do this.
Studies show that “a majority of America’s schools either neglect civic learning, or teach it in a minimal or superficial way…On a recent national assessment in civics, two-thirds of all American students scored below proficient.” (Guardian of Democracy: Successor Report to the Civic Mission of Schools).
One proven practice that makes up a strong, high-quality civics learning experience is through simulations of democratic processes and procedures. (Guardian of Democracy: Successor Report to the Civic Mission of Schools). By holding a voting simulation in our classroom, our students learn about the campaign process, political parties, the voter registration process, and experience the voting process in a tangible way.
Mock Election in Elementary
In my first grade classroom, I held a mock election every year. While it can be exciting to conduct a voting simulation during election season, this aspect of civic learning is something that can be taught any time of year, however I believe that holding this simulation during a major political event will make a bigger impact.
Who are the Candidates?
I do not have my young students vote for political candidates. Instead, I have my students vote on something that is age appropriate and meaningful to them, such as a favorite snack, candy, outdoor activity, song, or game. Whatever you choose, make sure that it is meaningful and inclusive.
What is the goal?
The goal is for my students to come away with an understanding that in the United States, our leaders (in this case, the president) are chosen by the people through a process, called an election. Voting is one way to use our voice.
Step One: Determine Level of Understanding
The first thing that I do, is determine my students’ level of understanding. If it is election season, my students may have heard their parents or guardians discussing the election. They may have seen commercials on tv or roadside signs. If it is not an election season, students may not be as familiar with the concept of voting or elections. By filling out a KWL chart, I can gauge my student’s prior knowledge and schema, and build on this as we go through this simulation.
Step Two: Election Process
In order to build an understanding of the election process in the United States, our students must understand that our leaders are chosen by the people. Unlike countries where an individual is born into a royal family and becomes king or queen, in the United States our leaders are chosen through a process called voting. I like to use picture cards as well as mentor texts to help solidify these concepts.
Step Three: Importance of Voting
It is critical that our students understand the importance of voting. If only a small number of people vote, our leaders are chosen by only a small margin. Voting is one of our duties as a citizen; it is our voice. In my class, we talk about how many people fought for our right to vote. We talk about how at one point in our nation’s history, women, African Americans, Latinx, Native Americans, and Asians, for example have faced barriers to voting. There are still many barriers today.
Step Four: Voter Eligibility
Next, we talk about the rules of voting. Depending on the age, I keep this simple. We talk about how at 18 years old a citizen can vote in our country. I often get asked by my students: "why do we have to wait until we are 18 to vote?" I talk about how at 18 years old most students have finished high school, hold jobs, may live on their own, and are old enough to make informed decisions. At 18 in our country, a person is considered an adult.
Picture books are a great way to expose our students to a variety of voices and experiences. Specifically, books centered around civil rights activists, the history or voting, and the purpose of voting can be really helpful in opening the door to meaningful discussion. Check out a list of 12 picture books for teaching about voting and elections HERE.
Step Five: Voter Registration and Mock Election
For the purposes of this election, I tell my students that they get to pretend they are 18 years old, and eligible to vote. You should hear the squeals of excitement! This alone is a BIG deal! I have my students fill out their voter registration cards that they will use for this election. Next I tell my students that they will be voting on their favorite flavor of ice-cream (chocolate, vanilla, or strawberry), and that we will have a class ice cream party with the winning flavor. Oh my goodness, is this exciting!! Now, if you have students with allergies, it is always nice to have an alternative sweet or special treat option on hand.
Step Six: Campaign Process
Now that my students know what they will be voting for, it is time to walk my students through the campaign process. Mentor texts are a great way to do this. During this lesson, my students understand that campaigning is a way of promoting or convincing others to make a certain choice. I have my students make campaign posters that include a slogan. I go over some examples to help my students brainstorm ideas.
One thing that I always quickly notice is that there is usually one choice or candidate that is less popular than the other two. There may be one flavor that is significantly more popular than the other two. That is ok.
I also notice that students may want to pick a choice because their best friend likes that choice. This happens in real life in our election process. A person may be influenced by their family, upbringing, or friends. What I really try to focus on is that our students understand that they are making a choice for a specific reason that is important or significant to them. For example, maybe they like the texture of chocolate best; maybe vanilla goes better with pie, or strawberries are their favorite fruit. Either way, students should make an informed decision.
Step Seven: Campaign Presentation & Polls
Next, I give time for students to present their posters to the classmates. This is an opportunity to voice their opinion about why they believe a particular flavor is the best. I like to create small groups so that students can practice speaking and communicating skills with their peers.
Next, we conduct a classroom poll or survey. I explain that after listening to their friends present, they may have changed their mind about the best flavor of ice cream, and that is ok. In fact, they may be undecided at this point. That is part of the election process and making an informed decision. After conducing the class survey, we graph the results and talk about which flavor is the “front-runner.”
Step Eight: Election Day
I choose a specific date as “election day.” I keep the campaign process and the election poll separate from the day that students cast their vote. In our democratic process, we have a specific election day, and I believe it is important to make this day significant. For our classroom election, my students must present their voter registration card before I hand them their ballot. I set up booths with privacy folders so that students can vote independently. Each student gets a turn to cast their vote.
I do not immediately tally the votes. Instead, I like to build the anticipation for this until later in the day. Just like in our own democratic process, the results do not come in immediately. You might even tally half the votes and share the updates, and then share the final results at the end of the day. I like to have the ice-cream party celebration the next day or at the end of the week.
You are going to have students that are happy with the outcome, and some that are disappointed. That is real life, and that is part of the election process. The crucial part is that students understand that their vote is important. I let my students know before I share election results that it is ok to be sad if the outcome is not what they had hoped. We talk about what it means to be a good winner and loser. One helpful book to consider reading is Cheetah Can't Lose by Bob Shea.
Translating to Real World:
I like to wrap up with a discussion about how even though my first graders might be too young to cast their vote in a real election, they can still exercise their voice in other ways. They can write a letter to their city mayor or council member; they can raise money for a cause, they can volunteer in their community. There are plenty of ways that they can participate in civics outside of voting.
If you are interesting in implementing this voting simulation in your classroom, you can grab all of the detailed teaching tips, student pages, and more through this complete Mock Election resource.